What Went Wrong: Great Depression

The view from the ground: Seeds of recovery

Sept. 17, 2012

Hundreds of letters poured into the offices of The Philadelphia Inquirer in response to the gripping story of economic woes told in the original America: What Went Wrong? series by Donald Barlett and James Steele 20 years ago. While letters today are submitted electronically and conversations are often are on cell phones, the feeling of economic despair sounds eerily familiar. Bill Cotter's letter is one in an occasional series about people who submitted their story to us over the many months that we have worked on our current project, What Went Wrong: The Betrayal of the American Dream. The series led to Barlett and Steele's new, best-selling book, "The Betrayal of the America Dream," released in August.

Now & then: Is the Great Recession so different from the Great Depression?

Dec. 24, 2011

Some call this moment the Great Recession. As the hardship has lingered, others have begun calling it the Little Depression. But equating the hard times of the 1930s with the hard times of today is mostly overblown rhetoric. Or is it?

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Profiles: Luanne Durst

Dec. 24, 2011

Luanne Durst was born in 1931, and spent the Depression in Rice Lake, Wis. "My father had to work so hard, and my mother tried to save so much. But I keep thinking it’s the same for families now, so uncertain."

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Profiles: Martha Rutherford

Dec. 24, 2011

Martha Rutherford, born in 1935, spent the Depression in Portland, Ore. Her family grew much of their own food, and "everything was canned or dried, preserved in some way, salted," she remembers.  

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Profiles: Saul Coplan

Dec. 24, 2011

Saul Coplan was born in 1932, and grew up in Philadelphia. At the penny-candy counter, he remembers, the store owner was desperate to hustle kids out, but "he couldn’t do that, because he was afraid he was going to lose business. Believe me, every penny counted." 

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Profiles: Neita Dudman

Dec. 24, 2011

Neita Dudman, born in 1927, lived in Texas during the Depression. "They put plant flour sacks in nice prints, and mothers would save those flour sacks and make dresses," she says. 

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Profiles: Charles MacArthur

Dec. 24, 2011

Charles MacArthur, born in 1928, lived in Western New York state during the Depression. "Four times in a year was the most we ever could afford to go to the movies," he remembers. "And it cost 12 and 15 cents for admission, so money was terribly tight."

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Profiles: Joseph Jackson

Dec. 24, 2011

Joseph Jackson, born 1924, grew up in Detroit. "They took my Christmas savings when the bank crashed. The bank closed and when I went to pick it up they were closed," he says. "I had to be 5 or 6."

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Profiles: George and Marge Franz

Dec. 24, 2011

George and Marge Franz, now married, both grew up in Chicago during the Depression. "My older brother, five years older, couldn’t find a job at 16. He got a job at Westinghouse and was there for 44 years," George says. 

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Profiles: Paul Ingram

Dec. 24, 2011

Paul Ingram, born in 1933, grew up in Detroit. "Jobs were difficult to get except Detroit was a little unique because you had the automobile industry," he says. "The African-Americans would end up working in the foundry, the dangerous jobs." 

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Profiles: Frank Luke

Dec. 24, 2011

Frank Luke, born in 1935, grew up in Honolulu. "My mother told that there was a 10-year period of recovery, and I think that they’re talking about it like that now," he says. 

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Profiles: Phyllis Lenhard

Dec. 24, 2011

Phyllis Lenhard, born in 1919, grew up in Dearborn, Mich. "Many times you’d find people out on the street, and they were begging for food. They were sitting there, and many of them were even veterans from the other war," she remembers. 

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Profiles: Queen Moore

Dec. 24, 2011

Queen Moore was born in 1920 and grew up in Brookneal, Va. "What you didn’t have, you had to do without and make ends meet the best way you can. I learned a whole lot by not having anything," she says.

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Profiles: Amelia Jackson

Dec. 24, 2011

Amelia Jackson, born 1927, grew up in Florida and South Carolina. "We didn’t have to worry about food or anything because everybody down South was neighborly like and everybody shared," she recalls. 

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Quiz: Then or now?

Dec. 24, 2011

News stories today bear an uncanny resemblance to some that ran during the Great Depression. Take our quiz, and see if you can tell which is which.

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Profiles: Margaret and Richard Deitrich

Dec. 18, 2011

Margaret and Richard Deitrich, now married, both grew up in Colorado's San Luis Valley during the Depression. "Nobody had much money. I didn’t really realize how poor we were. It was just the way everybody was," Margaret recalls. 

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.

Issues

Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

Nation's Story

Who pays the taxes?

Who pays the taxes?

We feature charts, maps, photos and other visualizations that reflect the state of the economy as part of our What Went Wrong project. This column chart shows the growing disparity between what individuals and corporations pay in taxes. In the 1950s, the difference was 22 percent. Recent figures show the difference is 62 percent.

Rags to rags: Economic mobility hard to come by

New Pew Center on States report confirms that moving up the American economic ladder is difficult, even though most people have more income than their parents.

Homelessness takes it toll on Florida's youngest

Florida, as a center of the housing boom, still struggles to recover from the Great Recession. Financial stresses and widespread foreclosures have placed families in precarious situations, resulting in a spike in child homelessness. Susannah Nesmith reports in the Broward Bulldog.

Older workers face challenges in Silicon Valley

An advanced degree and experience in the tech sector should be a ticket to a job in today's economy. But older workers in the heart of the new economy, Silicon Valley, are finding their resume is not the issue. Aaron Glantz reports in The Bay Citizen.

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.